Guardian Editorial

Newsom and the Clean Energy Act

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EDITORIAL A progressive measure that would make San Francisco one of the greenest cities in the nation will be on the ballot this fall. It’s designed to lower energy costs, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and promote green-collar jobs. It has all the elements that Mayor Gavin Newsom has been talking about in his high-profile speeches, press conferences, and celebrity appearances. It’s a perfect vehicle for a mayor who wants to stand out as a candidate for governor of California. It has the backing of some of Newsom’s close allies, like state Sen. Mark Leno.

That’s why Newsom ought to support the Clean Energy Act.

The charter amendment, sponsored by Sups. Aaron Peskin and Ross Mirkarimi, seeks to make San Francisco more energy independent. It sets ambitious goals for renewable energy and would put the city on track to create its own public power system. It’s not a radical measure — in fact, it’s milder than we would have liked. It doesn’t mandate an immediate takeover of Pacific Gas and Electric Co.’s facilities. It doesn’t turn the Public Utilities Commission into an elected body. And no matter what lies PG&E puts out, it won’t raise electric rates or cost the taxpayers money.

It does, however, mandate that the PUC look at the best ways to ensure that by 2017, 51 percent of the electricity used in the city comes from renewable resources. By 2040, that number should be 100 percent. And the evidence from across the nation shows that the best way to promote renewable energy is to shift from private control of utilities to public power.

Again, that’s hardly a radical notion: more than 2,000 cities in the United States have public power. Palo Alto is among them; so are Alameda and Santa Clara. The Sacramento Municipal Utility District provides reliable service to Sacramento County at rates 30 percent below what PG&E charges customers in adjoining areas — and SMUD has one of the best records in the nation for promoting conservation and renewable energy.

Of course, the very existence of any sort of plan to consider energy alternatives for San Francisco seems to terrify PG&E. Already the giant private utility is pulling political strings and retailing outrageous lies to try to scare the supervisors away from placing the charter amendment on the ballot. And we expect to see a savage, multimillion-dollar campaign against the measure this fall.

That’s because PG&E wants no hint of competition, no chance that the city might actually consider the benefits of public power. It’s no secret why. When you look at the facts, compare how public and private systems have fared in the past decade, and line up the financial figures and the prospects for sustainable energy policies, public power wins.

The biggest misinformation PG&E is putting out these days involves the cost of creating and running a public power system in San Francisco. The company is throwing out numbers like $4 billion, and suggesting that the taxpayers would be on the hook for all of it if the city tried to take over the company’s system.

For starters, there’s nothing in the Clean Energy Act that requires a takeover. It might turn out to be more prudent, for example, to slowly build a new city-owned infrastructure. More important, if the city did decide to buy out PG&E’s wires, poles, and meters, the cost would be nowhere near what the company is claiming.

How much is the system really worth? Well, one way to find out is to check the assessed value, the figure the state uses for property-tax purposes. And as Amanda Witherell reported July 2 (see "The dirty fight over clean power"), the state says all of PG&E’s property within San Francisco city limits is worth only $1.2 billion — and that includes the company’s downtown office complex, which is worth at least several hundred million. So the actual cost of the system might wind up at less than a quarter of what PG&E claims.

And none of that money — none — would come from taxpayers. The PUC could issue only revenue bonds, backed by future electricity sales, to finance any buyout or construction. No tax money would ever be in play. And our past analyses have consistently shown that the city could buy out PG&E’s system, cut electric rates, and still wind up with a sizable surplus every year.

Newsom is aware of all of this, and has said that he’s willing to consider supporting public power. Now there’s a measure heading for the ballot that would also mesh with all of the mayor’s environmental goals. The only argument against it is that PG&E — in the past a backer of the mayor — doesn’t want it to pass.

Newsom needs to support the Clean Energy Act. If he doesn’t, it will demonstrate that he lacks the backbone to stand up to special interests — and has no business running for governor of this state.

A kickoff press conference on the Clean Energy Act will be held at 11 a.m. Tuesday, July 22 on the steps of City Hall.

Peskin for DCCC chair

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EDITORIAL The San Francisco Democratic County Central Committee was the sleeper election in June: The Mark Leno–Carole Migden–Joe Nation contest for state Senate got a lot of attention, and the Bayview–Hunters Point redevelopment project got a huge amount of money, but only a small percentage of the voters got to the bottom of the ticket and chose the 24 people who will set policy for the local Democratic Party for the next two years. But a progressive slate won a significant number of seats. Now the DCCC has become a heated political battleground, with two candidates vying to become party chair.

The incumbent, Scott Wiener, leans toward the more moderate wing of the party, although he’s taken progressive stands on some issues. The challenger, Sup. Aaron Peskin, has the strong backing of many progressives.

The race has gotten a bit nasty: Sup. Chris Daly, a Peskin supporter, has sent out e-mail threatening the political future of committee members who don’t vote the right way. Both sides are lobbying furiously, with Leno helping Wiener and progressive leaders pushing Peskin. Right now it’s too close to call the election, which takes place later this month.

We’re not happy with the level of animosity here. We recognize that this isn’t the presidency of the United States, and that, thanks to the influence of the reform slate, the DCCC chair is no longer as powerful a position as it was in the days when the late Phil Burton and former Mayor Willie Brown controlled the party with an iron hand. And with the committee this closely split, neither candidate will be able to run an effective party operation this fall without working with both sides. So this shouldn’t be a political bloodbath.

We also recognize that neither candidate is perfect. We’ve disagreed with Peskin on a number of key issues, including Home Depot, and frankly, it’s not ideal to have the president of the Board of Supervisors also running the local Democratic Party.

But like any political contest, this ought to be decided on the issues — and on the future of the San Francisco Democratic Party. And Peskin is the clear choice.

If the DCCC did nothing but raise money, register voters, and push Democratic candidates, this wouldn’t be such an important fight. Weiner has done a perfectly fine job of keeping the party well funded and, under his tenure, 15,000 new Democratic voters have joined the ranks. But the party also endorses candidates and takes stands on ballot measures, and in close races — as some of the key battles will be this fall — the party’s support (which includes party money) can be significant.

And while the chair has only one vote, and can’t decide endorsements unilaterally, the person who runs the local party has a fair amount of influence over how money will be spent and how DCCC slate cards are managed; if the job didn’t matter, these two people (and their powerful allies) wouldn’t be fighting over it.

Peskin is on the right side of all the key fall contests. He’s backing progressive candidates for supervisor in the swing districts (John Avalos in District 11, Eric Mar in District 1, and David Chiu in District 3). He supports the housing justice initiative, is the cosponsor of the public power charter amendment, and the sponsor of two progressive tax measures. Wiener supports Ahsha Safai, the candidate of downtown and Mayor Gavin Newsom, in District 11. He hasn’t taken a position on public power, and told us he has "significant concerns" about the cost of the affordable housing measure, although he supports both of Peskin’s revenue proposals.

Wiener has been a reasonable and fair person as chair. But the issues matter. And if the San Francisco party is going to become a center for progressive activism, if the DCCC is going to be willing to challenge the state and national party and its leaders when necessary, take in the mayor when he’s wrong, and push the party to the left, putting a more activist progressive in the top slot is crucial.

It’s still possible a third candidate could come along. But for now the choices are Peskin and Wiener, and we urge progressives on the panel to support Aaron Peskin.

PS: As Amanda Witherell reports on page 14, PG&E is madly, desperately fighting to keep public power off the November ballot and is using every misleading figure and dirty trick possible. So the DCCC chair has to be willing to stand up to PG&E without hesitation or doubt.

A vote for public power in November

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EDITORIAL Working with environmentalist cover, Mayor Gavin Newsom and Pacific Gas and Electric Co. have moved aggressively to derail a move that would have given the city control over some local power generation. Instead, the mayor is now pushing to keep Mirant Corp. running the one electricity plant that still operates within city limits.

The politics of the deal are complicated, but the driving force is clear: PG&E didn’t want the city moving even a small step toward public power, and as usual, the big utility is getting its way.

The power plant deal proves exactly why Supervisors Ross Mirkarimi and Aaron Peskin should move forward with a November charter amendment for public power.

As Amanda Witherell reports, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission has been trying for years now to win approval for three city-owned combustion turbines that would generate electric power at a plant at the foot of Potrero Hill. The idea: the turbines, also known as "peakers," would generate enough power during peak-use periods to convince the state to shut down the dirtier Mirant Plant.

Many environmentalists opposed the proposal, saying that the city shouldn’t be building any new fossil-fuel plants. That’s a legitimate argument. But California’s Independent System Operator (Cal-ISO), the agency that controls the electric grid, insisted that renewable energy alone wouldn’t provide enough reliable power for San Francisco, and said the only way to shut down Mirant was to put in the peakers.

PG&E has been trying for months to derail the peakers — not, of course, out of any concern for the environment, but because the city would own the power plants. At first Newsom stuck by his PUC — but after seven PG&E lobbyists came into his office and gave him the facts of life (see "PG&E offers Newsom a blank check" at sfbg.com), he backed down. And now, after meeting with the CEOs of PG&E and Mirant, Newsom is pushing the worst possible alternative: he wants to retrofit the Mirant plant and let the private company operate its own peakers.

Same fossil fuel plants in the Bayview. Same type of air pollution. And the facility would be owned by a private company.

The supervisors need to reject this proposal with extreme prejudice — and the environmentalists who fought the city peakers ought to be just as loud in their opposition to Mirant’s retrofit.

The good news is that this ridiculous Newsom–PG&E deal ought to put the focus at City Hall back on public power, because that’s the only way to create a really green power profile in San Francisco.

Matthew Wald, who has coved energy policy for decades, wrote an interesting piece in the New York Times June 8 discussing why no private company wants to invest money in technology that would reduce carbon emissions from power plants. "Cutting carbon dioxide emissions is a fine idea, and a lot of companies would be proud to do it," Wald wrote. "But they would prefer to be second, if not third or fourth."

That’s because no private utility wants to take the risks and try something new that another company could then copy. In economic terms, carbon reduction is a public good — it’s something that benefits everyone, and nobody has the exclusive right to make money off of it. Private companies have been notoriously bad at investing in public goods.

But that’s not how public power agencies work. A San Francisco power agency would have every motivation to develop and use technology that saves consumers money or protects the environment. There’s no issue of profits to protect; in fact, one of the mandates of a city agency should be reducing carbon emissions and promoting renewable energy.

We have always been sympathetic to the concerns that the city-owned peakers would emit greenhouse gases. But if the city owned the plants, the city could shut them down anytime, whenever enough renewables were available. Mirant won’t shut down anything that is bringing in cash.

Mirkarimi and Peskin are working on the details of a public power measure, but the outlines ought to be clear: it should mandate that the SFPUC create and implement a plan to put the city in the retail power business, in compliance with the letter and spirit of the Raker Act — and get rid of PG&E and Mirant. The supervisors should put that on the November ballot.

The real energy-policy choice

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EDITORIAL According to City Attorney Dennis Herrera, if San Francisco wants to see the Potrero Hill power plant, which spews pollution over the southeast part of the city, close down next year, the city’s going to have to operate its own fossil fuel plants in the neighborhood. Some environmentalists say that’s not true — that the city could develop enough renewable energy and use existing backup systems to obviate the need for the so-called peaker plants.

Opposition to the plants comes from the Sierra Club, Supervisors Chris Daly and Ross Mirkarimi — and Pacific Gas and Electric Co.

Even for people who spend an inordinate amount of time studying energy policy, it’s a confusing mess of a situation — and San Francisco, of all cities, shouldn’t have to be facing it.

The peaker dilemma exists for a reason: San Francisco has allowed private-sector companies like PG&E and Mirant, which owns the existing Potrero plant, to control the city’s energy systems. The good news is that the fight over the power plants is driving a new move for public power — a move that ought to bring together the public interest activists on both sides of the plant divide.

Sups. Ross Mirkarimi, a peaker foe, and Aaron Peskin, a peaker supporter, plan to introduce a Charter Amendment mandating that the city’s Public Utilities Commission create a plan to establish a retail power agency in San Francisco. The amendment would provide the badly needed kick start to get city officials to act on San Francisco’s historic mandate for a municipal electricity system.

Peskin and Mirkarimi may not agree on the three peaker plants the PUC wants to site at the foot of Potrero Hill, but they do agree that PG&E is up to no good here. The giant private utility desperately wants to keep the city from developing its own electric power plants: the city peakers would be competition for PG&E and would open the door for the city to get more directly into the electricity business. Although the fliers put out by the "Close It Coalition," funded by PG&E, talk about environmental issues, that’s just old-fashioned greenwashing. PG&E is building similar combustion turbine gas-fueled generators all over the state.

Why should this be the city’s only choice?

If there’s going to be a fight over energy policy in San Francisco, it ought to focus on the real long-term questions: Who should control the local grid, and the future supply of electricity, and the decision over how much of the local portfolio should be in renewable resources? Should PG&E continue to hold that power, or should the city take it over?

The movement for public power is exploding all over California. In Marin County, a group called Marin Clean Energy is mounting a sophisticated campaign for a community-controlled power agency that would use 100 percent renewable power. The South San Joaquin County Irrigation District is trying aggressively, against a full-scale PG&E political assault, to buy out PG&E’s distribution facilities and create a new public power system. Stockton is looking at becoming a public power city.

San Francisco is pursuing CCA, but needs to do much more. This is, after all, the only city in the nation that has a mandate under federal law to sell retail electricity.

If the city had created a public power agency years ago, the peakers wouldn’t be an issue. San Francisco would have been able to develop more extensive renewable power sources, create a long-term energy plan, and concentrate on shutting down fossil fuel plants instead of building them.

But whatever the outcome of that fight, it’s time to think about the future — and the future is community-owned energy programs. That’s the choice that ought to be on the ballot in November.

PS: Stop the presses — has Newsom buckled to PG&E? The mayor at the last minute May 13 has orchestrated a delay in the peaker vote — at the behest, we hear, of PG&E, which is begging the mayor to do anything to stop public power. Now he wants to retrofit the Mirant plant. That’s an unacceptable option and needs to be rejected.

Newsom axes sunshine

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EDITORIAL Shortly before he left on a trip to Israel last week, Mayor Gavin Newsom quietly vetoed a bill that would have greatly expanded public access to the workings of San Francisco government. The supervisors need to override that veto as quickly as possible.

The measure, by Sup. Ross Mirkarimi, seems so simple that it’s hard to imagine why it would be controversial. Mirkarimi wants the city to audiotape or videotape any meeting of any public agency at City Hall, and post that tape on the Web within 72 hours.

That would make it much easier for people following local government actions to see or hear the actual testimony and discussion at board and commission meetings, most of which take place during the day when people with jobs can’t attend. The Board of Supervisors meetings are televised, as are most board committee meetings, but dozens of other agencies meet regularly with few people attending and virtually no press coverage. And there’s no easy way to find out exactly what went on at those meetings.

Posting the recordings on the Web is part of a larger agenda promoted by sunshine advocates who want to see the city use easily available and inexpensive modern technology to promote open government (see Sunshine in the digital age, 3/12/08). Among their proposals: at the very least, post and stream the audio portion of all meetings on the Internet. Most meetings are already recorded anyway, and all the meeting rooms are equipped with recording gear. But those recordings aren’t easy to access. The only way to get a copy of the proceedings is to send $10 for a DVD and $1 for an audiotape to the city, then wait a week for your media to arrive in the mail. How hard could it be to put that material on the Web?

Sunshine activists want to go a lot further. They suggest, for example, that every document and e-mail created by a city employee be sent automatically to a public server where it can be viewed over the Internet. And if there was adequate wi-fi service at City Hall (there isn’t), bloggers could post video of the meetings themselves.

Mirkarimi’s bill didn’t go anywhere near that far. All he asked was that the meetings that take place in rooms equipped for audio or video taping be recorded and that the files be placed on the Web. The total cost was pegged at $131,000 per year, but the city’s cable-TV franchise deal would require Comcast to pay $55,000 for the necessary new equipment. So the final tab would be only $72,000 a year. That’s such a minuscule percentage of the city’s $5 billion budget that it fits into the category of what Mirkarimi calls "decimal dust."

And yet in an April 30 veto message, Newsom said he found the cost too high. "I would urge the Board of Supervisors to hold off on new spending initiatives" until the next budget cycle, he said.

That’s crazy. We recognize that money is tight, but Newsom has pushed all sorts of new programs and initiatives that cost more than $72,000. In fact, he spent almost twice that much ($139,700) gussying up his office back in January.

Four supervisors voted against Mirkarimi’s bill: Carmen Chu, Sean Elsbernd, Jake McGoldrick, and Michela Alioto-Pier, so Mirkarimi appears to have seven votes to override the veto. It will take one more — one more supervisor willing to stand up for open government — to make this program happen. It’s embarrassing to see neighborhood supervisors voting against sunshine. Call the four and demand they vote to override. Chu: 554-7460. Elsbernd: 554-6516. McGoldrick: 554-7410. Alioto-Pier: 554-7752.

The feds raid San Francisco

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EDITORIAL On May 2, the day after thousands demonstrated for immigrant rights — exactly one month after Mayor Gavin Newsom and Sup. Tom Ammiano stood in front of the cameras and announced a new initiative to promote the city’s sanctuary policy for undocumented residents — federal agents swept into the city and arrested workers at El Balazo restaurant as part of an immigration enforcement raid.

It was bitterly ironic: much of the excitement of the large May Day rallies in San Francisco came from the diversity of the crowds and the connections among labor, antiwar activists, and immigrant-rights groups. The raid reflects the ongoing disaster that is US immigration policy under President George W. Bush — arresting and deporting restaurant workers tears up families and communities, is a colossal waste of money, does nothing about the economic issues driving immigration, and damages the San Francisco and California economies. But it’s tough to get leading Democrats to take a strong stand on the issue: both Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have ducked tough immigration questions during the presidential campaign.

And while San Francisco’s Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House, was against the fence and called it a "terrible idea," she hasn’t said a word in public about last week’s immigration raid in her home city. Neither has Sen. Dianne Feinstein or Sen. Barbara Boxer.

There’s only so much San Francisco can do to block the Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids. The local sanctuary law bars city officials from in any way assisting ICE in apprehending undocumented immigrants, and Newsom and the Police Commission should direct Police Chief Heather Fong to investigate and ensure that there were no San Francisco law enforcement resources used, directly or indirectly, in the raid.

But local activists can do a lot to stop this insanity, using the sorts of political alliances we were encouraged to see forming at the May Day events. For starters, the antiwar, labor, and immigrant rights groups should call on Pelosi, Feinstein, and Boxer to denounce the raids and demand that ICE stop terrorizing California workers.